What to drink in wildfire country
I could see the smoke as soon as my plane took off the runway in Seattle and started flying towards Glacier National Park. It continued to thicken as we moved westward, blending with the clouds and transforming into a thick, smudgy grey wall between my window seat and the mountains and lakes below. I had chosen that seat in hopes of watching our approach over one of my favorite places in the country, but my great view never appeared.
It wasn't a great time to go to Montana. But I had bought a last-minute plane ticket to visit a friend who was road-tripping around Idaho and Glacier and, like, does anyone really say no to a trip to Glacier? I think not. Plus, I know what smoggy summers are like in Atlanta, so I figured this wouldn't be so hard.
Stepping outside during a wildfire, even when you can't see the blaze or hear the fire engines, is like walking into the world's largest cookout. Every piece of your being smells like smoke, and your lungs fill with the stuff so much that you're still hacking it up five days after leaving. Occasionally, you'll get a break. There are pockets of clear air when you round a bend on a hike in the middle of the afternoon. One evening the sky even cleared for a few hours and we could see the moon.
But most of the time, the smoke just hovered there in the treetops, looking almost like an early morning fall fog. With an active imagination and sealed windows, we could pretend it was.
Smoke aside, Montana is a pretty cool place. It's not exactly an eating destination. As one of my new friends put it, the liquid stuff is amazing, but the solids, well, not so much. However, one does need to soak up booze with something, so I still managed to eat a lot.
Glacier Distilling is about a ten minute drive from the West entrance to the park. It's been around long enough to have some solid aged whiskeys on hand, but not so long that it missed the memo to make the place into a millennial-friendly drinking environment. (A bright red "whiskey barn," natch.) We made our way over there shortly after my flight got in and I immediately tucked into a potent concoction of the house bourbon, honey, and soda. It was tasty and not too sweet. I drank it so fast it was never photographed.
The bartenders also make a mean "Montana Mule," which combines their white whiskey and local crazy-spicy ginger beer. This drink gets served in one of those nifty copper mugs and it goes down way too easy. Free pretzels helped to mitigate my quickly decreasing sobriety.
More beers — I think I drank a couple Montana Helles Lagers from Bayern Brewery but can't be sure — and chicken tacos at a friend's house rounded out the first evening.
Less smoke on day two. We managed a 5 mile hike and actually got some views from Avalanche Lake (above). Also managed to not start drinking until around 6 that evening, so, yeah, accomplishments.
Post-hike, we headed to Packer's Roost, a dive on Highway 2. Perhaps the best part about the bar was reading the Yelp reviews beforehand:
From Carolyn R: "This place was horrible. We sat down at a sticky table. The waitress threw sticky menus at us. ... All the local drunks were laughing and carrying on with the waitress and bartenders. Stay away"
From Vicki L: "Don't go alone or stare at the locals."
From Steve O: "BEWARE BEWARE BEWARE...this is a biker bar..and a bar for locals who like to fight and drink ... cold beer for sure...colder stares at me."
You know, good stuff.
Packer's serves huge fucking burgers; I ate two-thirds of one that was topped with Ortega green chiles and pepper jack cheese, plus a good portion of superbly crisp fries. The burger was cooked well-done but still managed to hold on to some of its salty juice. It wasn't memorable, but it could have been much, much worse. Not a bad way to chase far too many pitchers of Kokanee, a decent, easy-drinking Canadian macro lager.
Unfortunately, none of us were witness to any biker brawls or sloppy drunk locals hitting on bartenders. Another time, perhaps.
Later we went to the slightly more upscale dive bar about 1000 feet down the road and I think I drank a pilsner from Deschutes. Whatever it was, it was flavorful enough that my drunk ass actually noticed a bit of piney and floral character. Ended the night with some tequila, which was a bad idea. (A good idea?)
Day three was super fucking smoky. Went on a creepy short hike through a previously burned forest, ate a mediocre BLT, and later some homemade Massaman curry. Beers at home, early bedtime.
The following day, we decided to ditch Montana and head south to my friend's place in a ski area outside of Salt Lake called Alta. It's an 11 hour drive from Glacier and we did it with no air conditioning in a large black vehicle. Again, accomplishments.
I-15 isn't exactly popping with good places to eat, but we stopped at perhaps the quirkiest: a nameless diner in an old schoolhouse in Dell, Montana. (Dell also boasts a general store, a post office, and a main street.)
Nothing on the menu was particularly special; I ate a serviceable ham and cheese and my friend went BLT. But it's one of those spots where any of the 51 local residents can pop in, walk behind the bar, grab their personal coffee mug, and help themselves to the carafe of coffee sitting next to the cash register. It had about eight different pies in the cooler, slices of which one of the two employees would zap in the microwave and top with generic vanilla ice cream from a giant plastic tub.
The diner reminded me of this place called Bon-Ton Mini Mart in middle-of-nowheresville Kentucky. Its interior was equally quirky and filled with ancient local farmers. Bon-Ton also serves the best fried chicken I've ever eaten. I wrote about it back in 2010 and had this to say:
"Imagine standard issue KFC. Now take this KFC and picture it with fresh chicken, cooked by hand, fresh out of the fryer. Imagine KFC with coated with just enough golden breading to shatter and crunch between your teeth while still clinging to the chicken. Imagine its meat so juicy its bright, rich liquor bursts into your mouth with each salty bite full of more than just 11 secret spices. Picture this chicken and perhaps you’ll come close to the experience of eating at Bon-Ton."
Nameless Montanta diner was nowhere near as good, but at least we could take pie to go and a snap picture to Instagram.
We roared into SLC at 9 that evening and grabbed a couple of burritos and Montucky Cold Snacks.* Said burritos came from this strange spot called Hector's on the outside of town. I'm not really sure how to categorize the burritos, other than the fact that they were mostly rice-free (!) and extra greasy. Hector's is pretty much zero-frills and nothing costs more than like 8 bucks. Not bad.
I didn't spend enough time in Montana to totally get the "Montucky" thing (apparently Montana and Kentucky are the same place??) but I was pretty into these cold snacks. The beer is basically like PBR but it's made by actual human beings who donate some of their dollars to local charities and whatnot. Also the can is rad as fuck.
The following day, we went on a gorgeous and hard-as-hell 10 mile hike up to the top of this mountain to fish at an alpine lake. Cocktails, wine, and homemade dinner followed. It was kinda like my weekends at home, but with way better views and more altitude exhaustion.
Capping off the gluttonous and alcohol-fueled trip was a pre-airport trip to Salt Lake's original Red Iguana location. This restaurant is crazy popular with SF-level lines during peak hours, but despite the far-too-colorful decorations and massive menu, it is not really a shitty tourist trap. This spot actually serves pretty legit Yucatecan and Oaxacan food alongside standard issue Mexican combo plates and mediocre margaritas that probably contained sweet and sour mix. (Yes, of course, I drank it anyway.)
I got to dig into a plate of enchiladas with a mole verde sauce made with pumpkin seeds, hella spices, zucchini, and avocados. The sauce was fairly light, but well balanced. It is a total treat for me to actually get to eat mole in a restaurant because I am a half person who could die from eating peanuts. Most places only serve variations of mole negro, which always lists death nuts as one of its 35 zillion ingredients.
But, like, they also have papazules on the menu (these crazy enchilada-like things filled with hardboiled eggs and served with multiple pumpkin seed sauces) and cochinita pibil and enchiladas potosinas (masa enchiladas with more mole). I made some of these things a couple of years ago when testing recipes from a Yucatecan cookbook and became pretty obsessed for a month or two. It's some rad stuff to find at such a popular restaurant.
Anyway, to end this long rambling post thing, it is very easy to get drunk in Montana. And the mountains outside of Salt Lake are crazy-pretty. You should probably go visit. And bring me.
*Ok, the cold snacks were purchased in Montana, so nobody in Utah freak out.